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Pesticide drift complaints grow, but not staffing

Inspectors may gather fewer samples to cope with workload

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig appears at a March 28, 2018, event in Cedar Rapids. “It’s true we’ve not seen a budget increase in the pesticide bureau, and I don’t expect to see a dramatic increase in the pesticide budget. So, what we do is look at how to manage the workload with the crew that we have,” Naig said earlier this month. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig appears at a March 28, 2018, event in Cedar Rapids. “It’s true we’ve not seen a budget increase in the pesticide bureau, and I don’t expect to see a dramatic increase in the pesticide budget. So, what we do is look at how to manage the workload with the crew that we have,” Naig said earlier this month. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Iowa will not add investigators to handle an increased number of pesticide drift complaints, instead favoring more efficient ways of handling complaint inspections, the state’s chief agriculture officer says.

“I’ve got to manage the department of ag within my budget,” Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said in IowaWatch’s weekly radio program that aired earlier this month.

“It’s true we’ve not seen a budget increase in the pesticide bureau, and I don’t expect to see a dramatic increase in the pesticide budget. So, what we do is look at how to manage the workload with the crew that we have.”

Naig’s comments follow an IowaWatch report on how workloads for Iowa’s eight state investigators who respond to complaints of misused herbicides have more than doubled the past two years.

The workload increase went from 110 misuse reports in the 2016 crop year to 249 in the 2018 crop year. The crop year runs from October through September, with the 2018 crop year ending last Sept. 30.

Experts, including Naig, say the increase is connected to the introduction by agrochemical companies of high-powered, dicamba-based herbicides to kill weeds in farm fields that have become resistant to less potent herbicides.

Naig praised the Iowa Pesticide Bureau staff that works out of his office as experienced and innovative. “Our inspectors are folks who have been on the ground for decades in many cases. So I have a high level of confidence in our team,” he said.

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“But, we knew there were some things that we could do differently: change, maybe, some of our sampling protocols to make us a little more efficient, maybe not take as many samples. We need to confirm what’s there but we don’t need to necessarily multiply that confirmation, if that makes some sense. We just need to get enough to know what’s going on.”

Relying on fewer samples also could trim work in the state laboratory where the particles investigators collect during spray drift inspections are analyzed, he said.

Follow-up visits and other tasks have been delayed so that the pesticide bureau’s investigators can focus on getting to farms as soon as possible when someone complains about an herbicide drifting on to a farm, Pesticide Bureau Chief Gretchen Paluch said.

Investigators want to respond to spray drift complaints within five days of a complaint, Paluch said in previous IowaWatch reporting.

Iowa’s pesticide bureau investigates improper application of pesticides, which includes herbicides and often includes spray drifting onto nearby property. It also is responsible for training and licensing private and commercial pesticide applicators.

“We’ve got a team of inspectors that are positioned across the state to conduct those investigations,” Naig said. “It can be a lengthy process but we’ve got teams to go out and do that work every year.”

The Agriculture Department’s Pesticide Bureau fielded 338 complaints in the 2018 crop year but investigators still were working on completing reports on the 249 misuse complaints in mid-February when IowaWatch checked for an earlier article.

The bureau received 331 complaints in the 2017 crop year. They resulted in 248 misuse reports. The year before that, in the 2016 crop year, the bureau received 195 complaints, which produced the 110 misuse investigations.

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The Pesticide Bureau’s budget, which covers a fiscal year of July through June, was $2.6 million in fiscal 2018, $2.5 million in fiscal 2017 and a little less than $2.4 million in fiscal 2016.

New weed control products containing dicamba have been controversial because of how much power they pack. They can stifle superweeds that have adapted to previous herbicides, including those containing dicamba with less potency, but also severely damage other plants if misapplied. Genetically engineered strains of soybeans have been created to resist dicamba.

But dicamba is prone to drifting in the air, worrying farmers who fear their crops could be contaminated from an herbicide used in a neighboring field. “Dicamba’s been around for decades but it’s a new use at a different time of year,” Naig said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds deferred to Naig on staffing levels when IowaWatch asked in February.

“I think you have people who want to do everything they can to make sure that they’re protecting the environment. Sometimes they get overzealous,” Reynolds said, referring to critics of current dicamba use. “There’s a balance that we need to move through when we’re trying to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to take care of the environment. But at the same time we have a tremendous obligation to feed and fuel the world. And we need to make sure that we’re able to meet that demand as well.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency governs pesticide use and applicators need to be certified to apply products with dicamba. Iowa’s approach is to let the EPA rules and labeling dictate how dicamba is regulated. The state requires applicators to follow directions on a label attached to a pesticide’s container for proper use of the chemicals.

“From that standpoint, we have not looked at additional state requirements because I believe that the changes that were made at the federal level on that label do accommodate for Iowa’s circumstances,” Naig said.

Arkansas tried to ban dicamba use but the EPA issued a ruling late last year allowing it. Missouri banned its use for a short while but lifted the ban in late 2017, though restrictions remain.

Naig said he’s starting to see a decrease in drift incidents across the state, although the most recent data show a marginal increase from the 2017 crop year to the 2018 crop year. Spraying will resume this spring.

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Naig said he would like the EPA to come up with application rules for corn and soybeans that fit particular needs of states like Iowa, in the Corn Belt. “Now, if states outside the area of this country that grow corn and soybeans need additional restrictions for their particular climate or their particular cropping system, so be it,” he said. “But we’re talking about a corn and soybean pesticide used in a corn and soybean state, so my expectation is that that label will fit Iowa,” Naig said.

Naig said current training, certification and licensing are important because he hears the complaints from farmers about drifting herbicides.

“But I also hear about the concerns from farmers needing to make sure they’ve got weed-control tools in the toolbox,” Naig said. “An important part of my job is to make sure that my farmers have options. And then their side of that is they need to follow the law, follow the label when they make those applications. So, I’m trying to be balanced in that approach.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at www.IowaWatch.org. Lauren Wade of IowaWatch contributed to this report.

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